“Polynesian Cultural Center Has Cultural, Spiritual Impact on Visitors,” Ensign, June 1982, 77–79
The sun sets gently on the western horizon as the coconut palms are silhouetted against the last hues of magenta and orange in the sky. A tropic darkness hushes the last glimmer of daylight. Suddenly music fills the air, and lights flood a stage set against the palms.
Thus begins another performance of “Invitation to Paradise” before an audience of almost 3,000. It is the climax to a day at Hawaii’s Polynesian Cultural Center.
This Church-sponsored institution, located at Laie on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is now in its nineteenth year and has attracted more than ten million visitors from the United States, Canada, Japan, and scores of other countries throughout the world. Its primary feature is demonstrating Polynesian culture; in a way, it has become a living museum of songs, dances, arts and crafts, histories, and lifestyles of people from Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tahiti/Marquesas.
William H. Cravens, general manager of the cultural center and president of the Laie Hawaii Stake, described the purpose of the center as twofold: “To preserve the culture of Polynesia, first and foremost; and second, to provide jobs and scholarships for students attending the Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University adjacent to the center.”
What it has done, it has done very well—so well that the Pacific Area Travel Association presented its first Pacific Cultural Award to the Polynesian Cultural Center for doing more to preserve one or more Pacific cultures than any other organization among its thirty-nation membership.
The center has become a “must see” visitor attraction in Hawaii, and rates as one of the top attractions in the state.
“The success enjoyed by the cultural center could be attributed to hard work and sacrifice, and pride in cultural heritage,” said President Cravens, “and the spirit of the gospel that allows people of different backgrounds to live together in a bond of peace and brotherhood.”
From the beginning, the center was intended to be more than a visitor attraction. It is, in fact, the result of prophetic visions which also helped establish a temple and a university in the same village of Laie.
In the 1860’s, when missionary work had been under way for a dozen years in Hawaii, a new gathering place was needed for the Saints. Under Brigham Young’s direction Elders Francis Hammond and George Nebeker negotiated to buy a 6,000-acre ranch in Laie from Thomas Dougherty for $14,000. The purchase price included 500 head of cattle, 500 head of sheep, 200 goats, and 26 horses.
But times were hard in those early years. Lack of water, harsh winds, and disappointing harvests fostered disillusionment among the settlers.
Joseph F. Smith, on his third mission to Hawaii, met with the Saints and encouraged them to stay. He reassured them that “this place has been chosen by the Lord as a gathering place for the Saints of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hawaii. Do not complain,” he told them. “Be patient, for the day is coming when this land will become a most beautiful land. Water shall spring forth in abundance, and upon the barren land you now see, the Saints will build homes. … Many trees will be planted and this place will become verdant, the fragrance of flowers will fill the air, and trees which are now seen growing on the mountains will be moved by the Saints and will grow in this place near the sea, and because of the great beauty of the land, birds will come here and sing their songs.
“And upon this place the glory of the Lord will rest to bless the Saints who believe in him and keep his commandments.” (Quoted in Reuben D. Law, The Founding and Early Development of the Church College of Hawaii, St. George, Utah: Dixie College Press, 1972, pp. 23–24.)
Within a few years artesian wells were discovered near the mountains, and the area of Laie has enjoyed plentiful supplies of water since.
President Smith returned to Laie in 1916 to dedicate a site for the first temple to be built outside the United States. It was completed in 1919.
Elder David O. McKay, while on a world tour of missions in 1921, stopped over at Laie and attended a flag-raising ceremony at the Laie school. He was deeply stirred as he watched children of many races salute the flag, and he envisioned a school of higher learning for that small community to complement the recently dedicated temple, making Laie the educational and spiritual center for the Saints in the Pacific.
That vision was fulfilled under President McKay’s direction in 1955 when the Church College of Hawaii opened its doors with 153 students enrolled. Four years later the college began offering a four-year curriculum, and in 1974 it became affiliated with Brigham Young University as its Hawaii campus. Today it has grown to accommodate 2,000 students from Hawaii, the United States mainland, and some thirty other countries. It is, according to Dr. J. Elliot Cameron, president of the Hawaii campus, “perhaps the most universal student body in the world.”
With this unique blend of international students came a special need to find employment for them in the rural community. It was this need, plus the influence of Elder Matthew Cowley, which led to the decision to build the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Elder Cowley knew of the sacrifices made by island people to come to Hawaii to do temple work. He had served as a missionary and mission president in New Zealand, and later, as an Apostle, was president of the Pacific Island missions. In conversations with Edward Clissold, president of the Hawaiian Mission, he said he hoped to see the day “when my Maori people will have a little village there at Laie with a beautiful carved house. The Tongans will have a little village, too, and the Tahitians and Samoans … all those islanders of the sea.” (Quoted in David W. Cummings, Polynesia in a Day! Laie, Hawaii: Polynesian Cultural Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1966, p. 7.)
Although Elder Cowley did not live to see his dream fulfilled, his vision was planted in the hearts of others who nurtured it to reality. Work started in 1962 with the same labor missionary support that had built the Church college, and in November 1963 the cultural center opened amid skepticism that it would not be successful. Critics pointed out that it was too far away from Waikiki, where Hawaii’s infant tourist industry was centered.
But already busloads of tourists were making their way around the island of Oahu to see the majestic cliffs of the Pali lookout, the scenic beaches of the north shore, and the Mormon Temple, known as the “Taj Mahal” of the Pacific.
As the first buses stopped by the cultural center, a warm welcome greeted the tourists. Then, in true Polynesian tradition, they were educated, entertained, and given a feast.
By 1972 the jumbo jets were beginning to arrive in Hawaii, and demand for tickets to the center outgrew the supply. From a twelve-acre original site, the villages and theater complex grew to forty-two acres and the amphitheater increased its capacity to 2,770.
Tropical foliage surrounds this spectacular amphitheater, and an artificial sixty-foot thundering volcano adds impact to the evening show. This show—“Invitation to Paradise”—is the highlight of the center’s activities. A cast of 150 singers, dancers, and musicians takes the audience on a musical journey through time, bringing history and legends to life with power and grace.
Early in the day, guests tour authentically recreated villages of Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Tahiti/Marquesas, and Tonga, participating in craft demonstrations and dances, listening to music, and observing the unique and common characteristics of each Polynesian culture.
A matinee program, “Music of Polynesia,” traces the history of music and instruments as they were introduced to the islands. Later in the afternoon the Pageant of Long Canoes features a festival of fashions, songs, and dances aboard double-hulled canoes gliding along a winding lagoon.
A Polynesian band concert follows at dusk with tunes from John Philip Souza, the Benny Goodman big-band era, and other specially arranged Polynesian numbers.
There is also an opportunity for visitors to the cultural center to take a one-hour tour of the Hawaii Temple grounds and visitors’ center. Each day a motorized trolley leaves the center every half hour and a student guide gives a historical review of the Laie community, passing by the BYU—Hawaii campus and making the stop at the temple. (Further information may be obtained by dialing this toll free telephone number: 800-367-7060.)
The success of this tour has caused the Temple visitors’ center to expand its facilities; it now receives up to 1,000 visitors a day.
“We provide missionary referrals to missions throughout the United States and as far away as South America, Germany, England, and the Orient,” said President Robert J. Martin of the Honolulu, Hawaii Mission. “We know of many families that have joined the Church because of impressions received during their visit to Laie.”